After three weeks in Saigon for Tet, I'm back in Ea Kly. It's 5:33AM as I begin this, and I'll type until 6:45, to begin my work day at the plastic recycling plant.
As usual, I sit at Mrs. Ha's cafe. I'm her first customer. Unlike Saigon, it's chilly here. Appearing suddenly from the shadow between my thighs, her white poodle demands attention. I pet him. She brings me my coffee and tea. Two long distance buses pause in the dark.
After Tet, most Vietnamese businesses reopen with a ceremonial food offering to the God of Prosperity [Ông Thần Tài] and God of the Soil [Ông Địa], two Chinese deities, and the date has to be carefully chosen, to ensure success for the coming year. My brother in law is very superstitious. To reverse some business setbacks, he had a back tattoo etched with a sadistically long needle for half an hour by a renown monk in Thailand, and magical charms given to him by a Teochew shaman in Vinh Chau, 125 miles south of Saigon.
You must honor your ancestors. Predating Darwin by millennia, the Chinese have many legends tracing their roots to monkeys. There are tales of monkeys turning into a man or woman to have sex with humans, or become a Buddha. Magical monkeys abound, but the most badass is the Monkey King, for he can shape shift, walk on water or through the earth, stop rivers, grab the moon, transfer his pain onto your body, give you nightmares, divide himself to confuse enemies and grow another head if he's decapitated.
Very few people go to Vinh Chau, but I made my first visit in 1998. My traveling companion was a 6 foot 9, red headed New York Jew, and Lloyd Luntz simply freaked out the backwoods locals. Kids ran up to pull the hair on his arms.
The shaman's house is 50 yards from a road. I half expected to find some scowling, intimidating dude, but only found a half dozen middle aged men, sitting cross legged on a wooden bed, drinking tea. The sun there is fierce, so people tend to be darker, but one bare-chested, white bearded guy was particularly dark. That's the shaman.
His concrete house was modest and rather ugly, his wife and kids were cheaply dressed and there was a shallow bamboo basket where six puny fish and three flayed frogs were being dried, probably to make rousong. At a nearby patch, rows of purple onions waited to be uprooted. In the distance, a spired Cambodian grave magnificently rose.
We entered a small yet elaborate shrine to the Monkey King, with murals on the walls illustrating episodes from Journey to the West.
Being seeing us, the shaman had to take care of a man who was made to sit on a chair of nails, as the still bare-chested holy man shouted abuses at him, with "f*ck your mother" a constant refrain. Enduring the ordeal, the distressed beneficiary was actually the Police Chief of Bac Lieu Province. In Vietnam, an official of that rank can expect to rake in lots of illicit loots, and make plenty of enemies, so somebody must have put a curse on him, hence this exorcism. "f*ck your mother!"
Performing his rituals, it's standard for the shaman to pierce his cheeks with two long rods, without drawing blood. He knelt, prayed, waved a fan, spoke in Vietnamese and Teochew, wrote magical charms in red ink with a brush and answered questions about our futures, along this line, "Your break won't come this year, but you must be patient. Don't lose heart." If I can learn to puncture my cheeks painlessly, maybe I can become a shaman also, but just for thinking that, I will likely be disfigured, if not killed, this year, so should it happen, you can trace it to this blasphemous sentence. "f*ck your mother!" Forgive me, Monkey King.
Each in our party of six left with magical charms, and the shaman also granted our plastic recycling plant strips of paper imbued with supernatural power, to be posted at strategic locations. Most importantly, we got our lucky reopening date.
9:34AM. After the last paragraph, we've unloaded two truckloads of plastic garbage, and the work day is going reasonably smoothly. By reopening a bit later than expected, we lost a handful of workers, for they simply couldn't hang around without an income. Also, Mr. Cuc is hospitalized, thanks to decades of heavy drinking. Though our oldest worker at 58, he seriously hauled ass. Mrs. Vinh is also not likely to return, for she continues to suffer beatings by her husband. The laws can't prosecute since she won't report these abuses. A few times, her male relatives have come over to rough up her husband in retaliation, but they can't keep doing that unless Mrs. Vinh wants them to. Black and blue, she stands by her man. In the US, too, I know women like this.
As I type, a small girl, nicknamed Rabbit, plays behind me, with plastic toys scavenged from the garbage. Both her parents work for us. Every so often, we get a kid inside our plant, and I try to humor them with cookies or candies. With heavy bags being moved about and bottles of insecticides among our recyclables, this environment is not exactly child friendly, but Rabbit is reasonably well behaved and rarely throws a tantrum. Next to broken dolls, a "HAPPY" rooster, brightly colored combs and a matchbox sized shopping cart, she fusses with a tiny oven. "Make me some food," I tell her. "I'm hungry!"